Distracted Students: Time for Us to Re-focus — Christine Zaza

Hands holding a smart phoneIn today’s university classrooms it is common to see students distracted by their laptops, tablets, phones, or smart watches.  Although they are physically present, those who are distracted by technology are not always psychologically or socially present or engaged in learning.  This is a widespread problem despite the growing body of research which shows that off-task multi-tasking with technology during class is detrimental to a student’s learning and to the learning of those around them.  Teaching distracted, disengaged students is leaving many instructors frustrated, discouraged, and deflated.

In their attempt to restore the learning environment, some instructors, and even some institutions, are banning laptops in their classes.  At the University of Waterloo, banning laptops in class is not an option because that practice not only violates UWaterloo’s Policy on Behaviour (Policy 33), it also violates provincial legislation (AODA and Ontario Human Rights).  (See the CTE Teaching Tip Sheet Laptops in the Classroom: Virtue or Vice.)  Although banning technology in class isn’t an option, instructors can ask students who use technology in class to sit in designated areas (e.g., sitting on the sides of the lecture hall) so that they don’t disturb others who are not using technology.

It is tempting to focus our attention and frustration on students, but students aren’t the only ones distracted by technology.  Faculty and staff are too, and they are sometimes distracted by technology at meetings, conferences, and other professional events.  Yet in those settings, this behaviour seems to go unquestioned.  Outside of the university environment, it has become the norm to be distracted by technology in the car, over dinner, at soccer games, grocery stores, etc.  With these ever-present distractions, the demands for self-regulation seem to be higher for all of us now that we have access to the entire world in the palm of our hand.   Many of today’s technological communications tools use persuasive techniques that make it harder for many of us to sustain uninterrupted focus.  It has become socially acceptable to disrupt our face-to-face interactions in order to communicate with friends and family via technology.  The problem is so prevalent that some people are turning to technology to help them block distractions from technology.  For example, Freedom is a technology-blocking app that allows individuals to block distractions on their electronic devices for selected periods of time, and the demand for this type of technology seems to be growing as people strive to regain control of their time and attention.

It is natural for teachers to want students to live up to their learning potential.  However, it’s easy to forget that students are mature adults who are ultimately responsible for their own education.  In discussing the problem of students distracted by technology in class, I have four recommendations to propose:

First, we should stop referring to technology as though it is a single entity which has only negative effects.  Technology can be used to improve student engagement in class, and it can be used to improve learning and facilitate communication, among other things.

Second, we should make the distinction between brief, minor distractions (e.g., quickly checking for or responding to a text, looking up a word in an online dictionary, checking a schedule or schedule reminder) and major, more disruptive distractions (e.g., watching videos or movies, playing video games, online shopping, engaging in lengthy chats in social media, etc.).

Third, we should apply the same standards and expectations to the entire campus community as we apply to students.   I have yet to hear anyone talk about implementing designated seating for technology users at staff and faculty meetings.

Fourth, we should use an ecological model as a framework for thinking about how to address this problem.  We can’t expect students to change their individual behaviour with technology without also considering the context in which they are choosing that behaviour and the larger context of the social norms which influence behaviour.

Rather than focusing on distracted students, let’s involve students in conversations about how technology-related distraction affects our campus community and what we should do about it.


Christine Zaza is CTE’s Faculty Liaison for Applied Health Sciences, Psychology, Sociology & Legal Studies, and Support Units.
Photo courtesy of Open Arms (Creative Commons License).

Notes from the Music Studio — Christine Zaza

playing pianojpgWhen I reflect on teaching and learning in higher education I realize that much of what I learned, I learned when I was a music student. Here are some of the highlights from the music studio that are just as applicable to university teaching and learning:

Practice, practice, practice. Actually, this would more aptly be phrased Practice-Feedback, Practice-Feedback, Practice-Feedback, but the rhythm just isn’t as good. I wouldn’t expect anyone to become a professional violinist without regular lessons with a qualified teacher. Regular feedback is critical to guiding students as they develop new skills. Without regular feedback, bad habits can become engrained and difficult to correct. In university, students learn a number of new skills and new ways of thinking and they need multiple opportunities to practice these skills with regular feedback. To ensure that students focus on the feedback and not just the grade, instructors can give a follow-up assignment students to make revisions highlighting how they have incorporated the feedback that they received on their first submission.

Practice the performance. When preparing for a recital or audition (a summative test), music students are advised to practice performing in front of friends, family –teddy bears if need be – several times, before the actual performance. Preparing for a performance is different from preparing for weekly lessons. Good performance preparation is crucial because in a performance you get one shot at the piece. There are no do-overs on stage. Similarly, when writing music theory or history exams, practicing the exam is an expected part of exam preparation. To facilitate this preparation, the Royal Conservatory of Music sells booklets of past exams. The Conservatory also returns graded exams so that students can see exactly where they earned and lost marks: considering that the Royal Conservatory of Music administers thousands of exams, three times a year, across the globe, this is a huge undertaking. At university, we know that self-testing is an effective study strategy and some instructors do provide several practice exams questions in their course. However, due to academic integrity concerns, the common practice is to deny students access to past exams as well as their own completed exam. I wonder if academic misconduct would be less of an issue if students were allowed to use past exams as practice tools. Amassing a large enough pool of past exam questions should address the concern that students will just memorize answers to questions that they’ve seen in advance.

Explicit instruction is key. It’s not very helpful to just tell a novice piano student to go home and practice. In the name of practicing, a novice student will, more than likely, play his or her piece over a few times, from bar 1 straight to the end, no matter what happens in between, and think that he has “practiced.” I know. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, and if you have a child in music lessons, I’ll bet you’ve heard it too. Explicit instruction means addressing many basic questions that an expert takes for granted: What does practicing look like? How many times a week should you practice? For how long should you practice? How do you know if you have practiced enough? How do you know if you have practiced well? Similarly, not all first students arrive at university knowing how to study. Many students would benefit from explicit instructions about learning and studying (e.g., What does studying look like? How do you know when you’ve studied enough? I’ve gone over my notes a few times – is that studying? Etc.

Know that students can’t learn it all at once. A good violin teacher knows that you can’t correct a student’s bow arm while you’re adjusting the left hand position, improving intonation, working on rhythm, teaching new notes, and refining dynamics. In any given lesson, the violin teacher chooses to let some things go while focusing on one particular aspect of playing otherwise the student will become too overwhelmed to take in any information at all. Suzuki teachers know that you always start by pointing out something positive about the student’s playing and that you can’t focus only on the errors. Students need encouragement. I think this is true at university as well. Becoming a good writer takes years and novice writers will likely continue to make several mistakes while at the same time improving one or two specific aspects of their writing. While giving feedback on written assignments, it’s important to acknowledge the positive aspects – that’s more encouraging that facing a sea of red that highlights only the errors.

Even if you didn’t take piano lessons as a child and even if have registered your 6 year old for hockey rather than violin lessons, I hope you’ll find these lessons from the music studio applicable to the university classroom.

 Photo privided by Samuel Cuenca under a Creative Commons license.